Two of the strongest teams in the competition – the holders Spain and 2019 semi-finalists Russian Tennis Federation – will collide in a blockbuster that is likely to settle who tops Group A.

Once the draw for the six groups at the Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals was made and the two powerhouses of Spain and Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) fell alongside one another in Group A, antic- ipation started to build.

Spain, of course, will be hoping that home- court advantage in the atmospheric Madrid Arena and a vocal and passionate local crowd gives them the extra few per cent required to see off, in RTF, arguably the strongest squad at any of the three venues.

Without their talisman Rafael Nadal, it will be an almighty task to beat a Russian team that features four of the world’s best. Captain Shamil Tarpischev has the luxury of se- lecting two singles players from a quartet

boasting September’s US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, established top-10 star Andrey Rublev, 2021 surprise package and perhaps the most improved player on tour this season, Aslan Karatsev, and Olympic silver medallist, former Masters 1000 cham- pion and top-10 player Karen Khachanov.

The luxury of choice

Whether Tarpischev rotates his singles players to keep them fresh or places trust in his two highest rated stars - Medvedev and Rublev - remains to be seen. It would come as no surprise if Karatsev made his Davis Cup debut after he reached the Australian Open semi-finals as a qualifier, collected two singles trophies in Dubai and Moscow, beat Novak Djokovic in the world No. 1’s own backyard in Belgrade and cracked the world’s top 20 in October. The 28-year- old, who began 2021 outside the top 100, also reached a Grand Slam mixed doubles final in Paris and left Tokyo with a mixed doubles silver medal.

Although Khachanov’s form has been arguably the most inconsistent of the Russian foursome, he still enjoyed the most successful Olympics of them all af- ter leaving with a singles silver medal, and notably beat Spaniard Pablo Carreño along the way.

Counting on home support

Spanish captain Sergi Bruguera will be all too aware of the size of the task, but even without Nadal might be quietly confident of springing a surprise. The former two-time Roland-Garros champion - who steered his men throughout a memorable title run two years ago - is likely to choose his singles players from a high quality trio comprising Carreño, Roberto Bautista and teenage star Carlos Alcaraz, who many experts predict will be a future Grand Slam champion and world No. 1.

Bautista has time and again showcased his value as a Davis Cup teammate, but never as dramatically as he did during the first staging of the new-look Finals two years ago. The 33-year-old tragically lost his father midway through that week, and after leaving Madrid to attend the fu- neral, then decided to return to re-unite

with Bruguera’s squad. Somehow he found the emotional strength to make himself available for selection when Spain took on Canada in the final and - incredibly - beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in the first singles match just 24 hours after saying goodbye to his father.

Bautista’s ability on court, mental strength and devotion to the Davis Cup cause will never be questioned, but what might please Bruguera the most is his recent head-to- head record against the top two Russians.

The former world No. 9 beat Mevdevev in the 2020 Cincinnati quarter-finals in three sets and outplayed him again, this time in the last eight at the Miami Masters this April - both meetings were on hard courts.

Bautista's history with Rublev might also give the hosts reason to be optimistic. Overall, their head-to-head stats are tight, and the Spaniard claimed their most recent hard court meeting when they played at the ATP 250 tournament in Doha in February.